Don't deny consumers the right to sound off online

By David ButlerConsumer Reports

If you’ve got a beef with a business, you might go to an online review site such as Yelp, Angie’s List, or TripAdvisor and tell readers about your bad experience. (Check our user's guide to user reviews.)

But some businesses are trying to step in and stop customers from expressing their opinion. They are slipping clauses into their consumer contracts that basically say that if you write a negative review about our company, we can take action against you, such as slap you with a hefty penalty.

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That’s what happened in Utah, where a couple was fined $3,500 by a company called KlearGear. The couple wrote an online review about a problem they had with a product. The company accused them of violating a “non-disparagement” clause in their contract. When the couple refused to hand over the $3,500, they said the company sent their debt to the credit reporting bureaus, which hurt the couple’s credit rating.

At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we firmly believe you have the right to speak candidly about the companies you do business with, just as we express our opinions about the products we test and rate. That’s why we are endorsing a new bill in Congress called the Consumer Review Freedom Act. It would make it illegal for businesses to penalize customers for writing negative reviews on online review sites.

Under the bill, companies would not be able to enforce these sneaky “non-disparagement” clauses that are tucked away in the customer's terms of service. The bill would also allow federal and state governments to take action against businesses that use these clauses. California approved a similar law earlier this month.

The Consumer Review Freedom Act is a pro-consumer bill that upholds free speech. Customers ought to be able to post honest reviews without fearing that the company will come after them.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is expected to vote Sept. 24 on whether to set strict safety standards for tiny, high-powered magnets, which pose a deadly risk to children if they are swallowed or inhaled.

When ingested, these magnets are so powerful they can tear holes in a child’s stomach or intestine. Recent news reports tell the tragic story of a 19-month-old girl in Ohio who died after ingesting magnets. Some magnet sets have been recalled in the past, but there are still products out there for sale.

Under the CPSC’s proposed rule, these magnets would be prohibited, unless they are large enough to not fit through a cylinder tube used to test choking hazards, or if they only have a small fraction of the strength found in the recalled products. Consumers Union strongly supports the CPSC’s proposal, and we urge the commissioners to approve it to keep unsafe products off the market.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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